My therapist reminds me on a very regular basis that the world would be a pretty boring place if everyone was like me. I’m pretty sure she’s not singling me out when she says this. I’m pretty sure she means that having aworld filled with different people, in general, makes for a more interesting world than one where we’re all the same. And since I pay her for this kind of advice, I spend a great deal of time and effort trying to remember this factoid, reminding myself whenever I see people behaving in ways I do not understand (read, “not like me”) that it’s okay. It’s okay that the young man wears his shirts 3x too big and his pants are falling off his ass (read, “not like me”). Loud music next playing next door, littering in the park, talking on cellphones when working a counter register, driving aggressively, swearing in front of children… these are simply different forms of personal expression. Different than my own. It’s all okay. (NO! Of course I don’t really think these things are okay!)
Yet, last week as I traveled down the East Coast from Massachusetts to Virginia, part of a road trip to see family, I couldn’t help but notice how little difference there is between places anymore. Yes, the people still vary in dress, manners, accents and colloquialisms (to a degree, anyway), but places themselves – cities, towns and even states – are steadily losing their uniqueness. About 8:00 on the evening we were driving south, we pulled off in Fredericksburg, VA to get a bite to eat. I said to Lynn, “Let’s stop at the place of my birth.” And you know what? It looked EXACTLY like the place I live in 48 years later and 500 miles away.
We stopped at the Panera. Same old Panera you see anywhere. Same menu, same furniture, same uniforms on the wait staff, same process to order and receive your sandwich. Across the street was a Starbuck’s and next to it a Chili’s. Same gas stations, same grocery stores, same pharmacies, same sporting goods, same everything.
We used to play this game whenever we’d stop at a Denny’s. Lynn would ask me, “Where are we?” and I could answer, “Portland, Maine” or “Lincoln, Nebraska”, it didn’t matter. We could imagine we were on a grand cross-country trip, even if we were just in the next town. It was kind of fun.
Until this past trip.
This past trip I started to feel sad about everything being the same. Maybe it’s because I was going home, but home looked just like home. They say, “You can never go home again”, but honestly with everything being the same everywhere, you can start to wonder if you ever left. You could probably get plopped right down in the middle of a completely strange place, but find your way to a dozen familiar spots within 10 minutes. And then… there’s nothing strange at all, is there?
So why DO businesses feel the need to envelope our entire country with their same old selves? I saw that a Wegman’s grocery store is going to be built nearby soon. To me, Wegman’s means Ithaca, NY (or at least Upstate NY). Going to the Wegman’s in Ithaca was really neat, made even neater because that’s the place I could go there. I couldn’t go to Wegman’s when I was home in Maine. It was something to look forward to. Yes, yes… it’s just a grocery store, but that’s not the point. The point is that when every single town in our country becomes one big strip mall of the same old stores, then what the heck makes it unique anymore? What makes it special? And what has happened to our society that we find some sort of comfort in this? Why do we choose to eat a Big Mac over checking out Mac’s Diner?
Variety is the spice of life. At least it was, once upon a time.
[Rant Complete. Bewilderment Remains. Assimilate All.]